100th Infantry Battalion
Life at Stalag VII A
Rations include barley soup and boiled potatoes with a piece of cheese or occasional sausage.
Prisoners are also given barely edible bread made with sawdust.
When canned goods from Red Cross parcels are distributed, the Germans puncture each can, rendering each useless for any planned escape attempts.
Cigarettes from the parcels are used in camp as currency. They can be traded to townswomen for softer bread made with caraway seeds.
[Supplemental text excerpted from Stanley Akita's memoir "Stalag VII A."]
Life in prison was a routine one.
We got up at 4:30 a.m., had our coffee and by 5:30 we were in the boxcars headed for Munich. The train ride took 2 to 3 hours depending on how often we had air raids.
Once we reached Munich we were split up into groups of 10 to each guard and the lucky ones got to go into town where there were lots of civilian women where trading was super if you had a good guard. To get the guard in the right mood before we started work, we would bribe him by giving him 2 cigarettes apiece. The luckier ones got to go to influential residences to clear the debris and they got good trading plus got to sit on regular dining table and use appropriate silverwares and dishes and eat regular good hot food. I had an opportunity like that once when we helped a lawyer transfer his books from his downtown office to his country estate. It was an enjoyable day.
The unlucky ones ended up working on the railroad sometimes alongside political prisoners dressed in cotton clothing striped black and white. They were all shaven bald for easy identification. You only got to trade when your work took you near the depot.
The work on the railroad wasn't too bad. Four to six men carried railroad ties about 10' long. It took 50 men about three days to cover up one bomb crater about 30' in diameter and about 10' deep. It must have been a fairly good-sized bomb for the crater was made on solidly packed ballast material. The rails could be twisted like pretzels. After a good day's bombing on approaching the railroad yard, it looks like a field of giant pretzels. The rest of the area including buildings would be just a shamble.
Everywhere I go with the work detail, the civilians would ask the guard if I was a Chinese soldier. When told that we were Japanese, they'd have that, "How come?" expression on their face.
In the City of Munich, majority of the buildings were left with big gaping holes, buildings with one wall completely blasted away with large gaping holes on the roof, and buildings were completely demolished. All the people could do was to clear the debris enough so that an automobile can pass through. In some instances only a footpath for pedestrians and cyclists.
Regardless of that wartorn condition, Germany was a very neat nation. Their homes were kept spic and span. Whatever panes not destroyed by the bombing were kept sparkling clear.
One of the best detail to be on was the potato digging detail. For the six months in prison, I got to go only twice. Actually it’s a detail for digging potato that has been stored underground. After the potatoes have been harvested, a trench 4' wide and 1-1/2' deep is dug - the whole length of the field near the camp. Then the potatoes are piled in these trenches and covered with a foot of straw, then covered again with earth. This is to protect the spuds from frost, etc. We would shovel spuds in the wheelbarrow and at the same time fill our overcoats with it too. Our overcoats had so many pockets sewed in it that I could carry at least 9 loaves of bread. You can just imagine the amount of spuds we took back to camp that night. My partner and I had fried potatoes, mashed potatoes, boiled potatoes and potato soup. Potatoes were running out of our ears.
During the early part of March, 1945, about 500 of us was sent to a very small farm village about 3 miles from a railroad yard. I was separated from my partner and was the only one from Hawaii in this group. We were quartered in a huge barn. We slept directly on the ground covered with straws. Our toilet was the craziest damn thing I ever saw. A 6" diameter log about 15' long was built similar to the carpenter's horse but only about 18" off the ground. Directly behind the log horse was this slit trench. All you do is to hang your bare rear end over the log. To make things worse, there were no screen to hide us. Every "Hans" and "Fritz" walking by could see us "sitting on the log."
Our bathroom was just as bad. This is the first time since October that I could take a bath every day if I wanted to but our bathroom was the wide open space and the bath tub was the little stream that ran about 50' away and parallel to the road traveled daily by civilians. The only time you take a bath is when a whole bunch of us go, and the majority only bathe once a week. Boy, you should see 500 naked men all in the stream at once. You can see all sizes and shapes. Just like the old swimming hole back home.
We walked to work 3 miles to and from work every day to clear up the mess at the railroad yard.
Every night, guys would go to the kitchen or mess and get a big bucket of boiled potatoes. Just one. And a chunk of cheese. And maybe a piece of sausage if you're lucky.
By now our shares of ration from the Germans were pretty well set. For breakfast we get a cupful of "coffee" that tasted exactly like our local "habu cha" (a type of tea). For lunch we received a bowl of thin barley soup, and for dinner 4 to 6 boiled potatoes, a 6th of a loaf of "sawdust" bread and occasionally a 1" slice of some sort of sausages.
We received our very talked about American Red Cross Food Parcels. The parcel was about a foot square and 6 inches high. Actually one prisoner is to get one parcel a week. But due to the lack of other food, a prisoner may eat it all in 2 or 3 days and starve the other five or six; also one can keep the canned goods for escaping purposes so the Germans punctured all canned goods so we had to eat it and 6 prisoners divided one parcel every day so that at the end of the sixth day, you would have received 1 whole parcel. We were supposed to save a little each day for the Sunday "dinner."
The Red Cross Parcel consisted of 5 packs of cigarettes, 1 can of powdered milk, 1-"D" bar (Army candy bar), 1-can oleomargarine, a can of meat or fish, a package of M-M candy, a small can of jelly, a package of crackers, and a box of diced fruits.
But in the meantime, they steal. Your fellow prisoner would steal and take food out of your box. So to avoid that, the Germans said okay, every sixth person divide the food. So among the six, we elect a leader. He'd cut the cheese up and form six bunches, he'd cut six pieces of sausage and they'd get enough potato for each group. Then we'd cut cards to see who gets the first draw. So now, that the cheese are all crumbled. So when you put the clumps together - if you pick the ace, to be the first one, boy, it takes you at least a minute or two to figure which pile has the most cheese or whatever. You get your piece of plate or something, you scrape it right off.
But that's the way things went. When we go out to eat, we'd have a can stuck to epaulet here and a little GI spoon. Because they're guaranteed to serve you barley soup. That's all they eat over there, out in the field, barley soup.
Once, we were lucky enough, about a dozen of us was selected to clean up one lawyer's office right in Munich. So we go to the lawyer's office, bring all the books, whatever desk, down to the truck. Filled 'em on the truck. We all went down to his so-called castle out in the country, real old one. We unloaded that thing and we sat down to eat lunch. They served us sausage, beer and bread.
I call that the German GI bread, government issue.
Whenever we had that, I found out that you cannot eat it like the way we eat bread, locally. Like put your butter on it or jelly and just eating it. It was so dry, when it enters your body, it absorbs all the liquid, you get constipated. Boy, that's a real hard constipation. It was a real solid bread, though.
German Black Bread Recipe
[The following ingredients are from the Food Providing Ministry in Berlin, Germany. It was labeled “(Top Secret) Berlin 24.X1 1941.]
50% bruised rye grain
20% sliced sugar beets
20% tree flour (sawdust)
10% minced leaves and straw
The grain should be sufficiently rotten to provide gases to allow the bread to rise. The pieces of sugar beets provide sugar to supply the yeasty rye.
Mix together ingredients to create dough. Shape into loaves and bake. A loaf should weigh 3 to 4 pounds.
The way the Germans eat it is they have a small pouch. In the pouch, they have a piece of bread, piece of sausage and a piece of cheese. They used the bread only when they have the hunger pang. They take out the bread and you know the way we used to slice opihi [dried abalone]? They just slice a piece, slice a piece of cheese, a little sausage and bread. Maybe two, three slices, small slices and they put it away again.
Maybe hour or two later, they do the same thing. But they never gobbled it up like we do. Like we do bread in America. But I got to say, maybe they knew something about nourishment, too, in a way, if done right, if eaten correctly. I always felt that it kind of reminded me of Japan. The two countries, like brother and sister to me. Because they always think about nourishment, yeah. They always think about the health. Somehow, when I see them do things, it kind of reminds me of the Japanese, I don't know why. Maybe that's why we got along well with the Alabama prisoners.
That German military bread, you can almost kill a guy with it, it's so heavy.
Trading Bread and Cigarettes
I had a partner. We usually partner with somebody whenever we go out to work. In the prison camp, the privates and the PFCs [private first class], the two lowest ranks, are the only ones that goes out to work. Anybody with two stripes or more are considered non-commissioned officers and regular officers stayed back at camp.
In a prisoner of war camp, such as the one we were in, the privates and PFC's were a little better off than the rest. By rest we mean officers, non-coms, and all medics regardless of rank. By the Geneva Convention rules, the privates and PFC's were the only ones the captors can use for work detail. By being able to work, we were sent to Munich every day by train to clear the debris in town and to clear the railroads. Today when I sing the song "I've Been Working on the Railroad," it brings back memories of Stalag VII A.
Let's say you and I were partners. We make sure that you go a different gang from me. We don't stay together. When we go out to work in Munich, during the working period, we see a lady come with a woven basket but it's woven to the extent that you can see what's in there. Loaves of bread or whatever she bought shopping.
The beauty of being able to work was that we could trade 4 of our cigarettes for 1 loaf of civilian bread. This bread had no "sawdust" and it was softer and they had caraway seeds in it. We could sell this bread back in prison for 1 pack of cigarettes. Just imagine, 400% profit. We privates who could get extra loaves were "rich."
But when a lady come with a woven basket with bread in it, near us, what we do is, the ten of us get together - and we never fight, we say, "Okay, Warren, it's your turn first." So you go there and trade with the ladies, whatever you want to give, you want to give four cigarettes a loaf, it's up to you. Two cigarettes.
The best trading I ever had was when I had nine loaves of bread on one. Our overcoats had pockets sewed inside to take care up to 10 loaves. I was elated that I could just picture the eight packs of cigarettes.
Normally, it's two cigarettes per loaf. That's a standard that was passed around the POWs. And then what we had, our overcoat. Pockets all in the back, so we can shove the bread in. I had facility to put about six loaves in my overcoat. And one day, we were so lucky that everybody had their share of bread and I had my full six loaves.
Every night after work, we marched in groups of 50 back to camp. And every night the Germans would pick a group at random for a shakedown. They were interested more with prisoners who smuggled in weapons or tools.
Well, it was just my luck that that night it was our group that was chosen for a shakedown.
So these guys said, "Okay, all the guys with bread, stay way in the back." We were throwing the bread out of the window. And I was trying to eat as much as I can myself and throwing the bread and eating at the same time. About twenty guys was doing the same thing. Gobbling the bread down. Then when our turn come, we'd walk in line and what the German did was, just tap me on the head and say "Kleiner soldat," small soldier. And just pass me, too. He didn't even touch me, search me.
There were loaves of bread and pliers and tools and what not all piled up. But I could have gotten back to camp with my six loaves without any problem. But, on the way back to your compound area, you have to pass a non-commission officers' and the regular officers' compound. While doing so - we sell that one loaf bread for one pack cigarette. So we paid two cigarettes for one loaf, so we sell it for one pack. So we make eighteen cigarette profit. So then, you can go back to the barracks and smoke all what you want and still have a lot of cigarettes next day to trade. But people used to trade for bread, some people preferred cheese and some other food, whatever the ladies had to trade, we traded for cigarettes.
American cigarettes was like gold in those days. It tastes good, it smells good. The Germans used to like that.
Even when we go out to work, the ten of us take two cigarettes each and this guy goes up to the guards, we just show him the cigarette, the twenty cigarettes and he doesn't take it from you directly. All he does is come close to you, sidle up to you and faces his overcoat pocket near you. All you do is drop the cigarettes in his overcoat pocket. And few minutes later, you can see him tearing one up and putting it in a pipe and smoking away. But once you so-called "buy out" that guard, you got it made all day. Whenever the ladies came by, he just turns around and goes the other way. And we send somebody over to trade with the lady.
The German civilian bread had - one of the ingredients in there was caraway seeds, which they mix it up in the dough and bake it. And boy, the caraway seed makes the bread. When you bite on it, just like you biting on a piece of orange skin. That's the flavor it gave me. Till today, if I ever see on the market, that German bread, just because it's German I try to buy it, to see if they do have caraway seeds. But it's not like the war days German bread. Maybe because I was hungry, it tasted so good.
A lot of the time was spent within the prison compound. We used to do a lot of playing the checkers and whatnot. That’s about all they supplied us. Checkers and backgammon or something like that. But we played Hearts, card game, cribbage. The difference between the American POW package, as compared to the British, was that the American people thought that once you get captured and go into prison, all you do is play. They never thought that we’d go out to work, clearing here and clearing there. But the British was a little more thoughtful. Americans, they gave us all kinds of games like a deck of cards in there or cribbage board, which, technically, we didn’t have time for all that. Only on Sundays maybe. But the British, they had all food in there.
Life in prison wasn't all work. Ever so often, maybe once or twice a month when the Air Force runs out of targets, we get a Sunday off. That's when if it's sunny, the blankets get an airing out, clothes gets a washing, at the same time we try to bathe; about 200 men to a tap, clear our quarters and have a hair-cut. Talking of haircut, I was one of the barbers there. After cutting at least a hundred heads I knew that dogs don't feel the fleas that're crawling all over them until it bites them. 'Cause many are the times while cutting hair I'd see fleas leap out of the head. I'd tell him about it and he replies, "That's funny, I didn't feel anything." Some of them think I'm joking.
Sometimes, while on work detail, we'd have a "good-Joe" for a guard. On those days, we take off our long-john underwear and bury them in the snow for about 1 hour. Later on we just shake the snow off and pick off the frozen louse and fleas. The fleas wasn't too plentiful, maybe 1 or 2 frozen ones but depending on how often you took a bath, you'll see at least a dozen lice frozen on your long johns.
We may have had times when we had lots to eat but out of the many things we had to eat, the small quantities of cheese and sausages were the only things containing any food value. The rest was all starchy food. This is where I learned to eat the Limburger cheese. At that time, I thought it tasted alright except for the odor. Today, I can't imagine how I ate that damn stuff. One thing I enjoyed eating was during spring when the wild dandelions started to pop up, we'd pick the young leaves and chop it up and made dandelion omelet.
Stanley Akita's interview courtesy of the Center for Oral History. Supplemental text excerpted from Stanley Akita's unpublished manuscript "Stalag VII A" courtesy of Stanley Akita. Photographs courtesy of Moosburg Online (www.stalag.moosburg.org) and Library of Congress.